Whether you cook with wood, charcoal, or gas, the risks remain the same. Why? Flames turn chemicals found in so-called “muscle meat” such as beef, pork, poultry and fish into carcinogenic substances.
HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are chemicals linked to increased breast, prostrate and colorectal cancer. When meat, fish or poultry, are cooked over an open fire, juices drip onto the coals, causing flames to flare. The meat is engulfed in vapours which are aromatic, delicious and also toxic.
So is there any way to safely cook meat over an open fire? Here are some suggestions:
1. Choose wisely:
- Go for small cuts: They cook faster, so spend less time over the flames.
- Select lean meat: Less fat reduces the flames and therefore produces less smoke.
2. Prepare with care:
- Marinate: There are differing views on this. However it is believed that marinating vastly reduces HCA formation.
- Use virgin olive oil: The phenolic compounds have antioxidant properties believed to reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs. An Italian study published in 2007 suggested that the use of this oil may reduce the risk of colonic cancer.
- Break open a capsule of vitamin E. Mix this into meat or marinade to reduce the formation of HCAs.
- Add rosemary, garlic and/or sage: to your marinade or other dishes. They have been found to block the formation of both HCAs and PAHs.
- Cook with cherries, which are rich in antioxidants. Researchers at Michigan State University found that adding cherries to ground beef reduced the HCAs produced by approximately 70%.
- Pre-cook foods. Microwave meat for two minutes before braaiing. This draws liquid out of the meat which reduces flare-ups on the fire. The NCI (National Cancer Institute) says this decreases HCA content by 90%. Cooking the meat while it is warm also decreases time over the flames.
3. Start the fire:
- Allow coals to cool. High-temperature cooking is fuel for carcinogens.
- Position the rack up from the flames.
4. Cook to perfection:
- Use tongs and do not prick meat. When the meat is punctured, juice drips onto the coals, causing flare-ups and increased smoke.
- Flip every minute. This prevents a loss of heat from both sides so the meat cooks faster, resulting in less HCAs.
- Avoid overcooking. The longer you braai, the more the carcinogens develop. However undercooking can also be dangerous, so be sure your meat is cooked through.
- Hold back on the gravy: Do not use juices produced during microwave pre-cooking as they have a high content of the proteins that form HCAs.
5. The most important part: Enjoy!
- Augment the menu: with vegetables such as cauliflower, onions, kale and broccoli, and fruits such as apples, grapes and berries. These are high in antioxidants and other phytonutrients.
- End with a cup of tea: The polyphenols in rooibos and green tea particularly help our bodies excrete carcinogenic compounds.
So next time you feel like a braai or barbeque, remember that fire burns. That doesn’t mean we don’t use it. It means we treat it with respect. Enjoy your boerewors!